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Moravian Putz

Putzes are often displayed in Moravian churches and even private homes, like this one.

It can be as simple as you like, it can be as elaborate as you like. The main thing is that the Putz tells the holy story of our dear Savior’s Birth long ago. There are Putzes that fill whole rooms and have many different scenes depicting the events of Our Lord’s Incarnation, the Prophet Isaiah or John the Baptist, the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, the Ascent to Bethlehem, the Stable, the Shepherds and so on. A Putz can be as simple as figures of the Blessed Virgin, Joseph, the Baby Jesus and the Ox and the Ass in a simple stable made of twigs.

The main thing is to “tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love” as the hymn says. The Ox and the Ass are there, not as you might think because Jesus was born in a barn, rather they are there because they are the first witnesses of our Lord’s Birth. Isaiah the Prohet tells us (1:3) “‘The Ox knows its master and the Ass knows its owner’s manger, but My People does not know Me,’ says the Lord of Hosts.” Even they recognized the word made flesh. The Putz is a wonderful educational tool to help us do the same. What a wonderful opportunity the Putz gives us to “tell the old,old story”, to share it with our family and friends.

Bishop Kenneth Hamilton, who ordained me many long years ago, once said “The Baby Jesus is the center of every Putz.” And so He must be. The Putz also helps us keep Jesus at the Center of our Christmas celebration. Long ago Bishop Hennig Schlimm of Germany was trying to explain my Koenigsfeld Putz to some German visitors there. “In the American Moravian Church,” he said, “the Putz is as important as the Christmas Tree.” I wish it had been true then, I wish even more that it were true now. We need even more to put Jesus in the center of our Christmas celebrations.

Pastor Roy Ledbetter is a Moravian pastor serving an ELCA Lutheran parish in St. Louis. He has served parishes in Virginia, North Carolina, Germany and Missouri. A writer and editor, he raises blackberries for pies, is an avid woodcarver and Putz builder and does volunteer translating for the Moravian Archives in Herrnhut, Bethlehem and Salem.

(Editor’s Note: The Moravian putz, pronounced “puts,” is a miniature nativity scene. The word comes from the German word “putzen,” meaning “to decorate.” For more information about putzes, check out this Victorian Christmas site, or read about putz displays at Central Moravian Church and First Moravian Church in Greensboro, NC.  Accounts differ as to the origins of the Putz.)

Pastor Roy’s Kastenkrippe

Pastor Roy’s Kastenkrippe appears at right. Read about his long-abiding love for the putz in this article, originally published in The Creche Herald in 2009:

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I heard the first Christmas carol on November l4.  I remember being 1) confused and startled – Is that “Silent Night”?  Why in the world is “Silent Night” playing on the radio? – then 2) resentful – What in the world are they thinking?!  It’s only November l4th! – and then resigned; after all, hadn’t the stores already been decorated for Christmas for two weeks?  Why should I be surprised by a little premature carol-playing?

     As they say, Christmas comes earlier every year.  I confess, I’ve grown weary of the whole event.  By that, I don’t just mean the rampant consumerism, the endless messages that suggest that we adults must give, give, give to prove our love and devotion, and the endless messages pumped out to our children that their job is to ask, ask, ask for more.  (The number of items on my youngest son’s Christmas list is fast approaching thirty.)  I’ve grown weary as well of the anti-consumerism messages.  The simplicity messages.  The “real meaning” of Christmas messages that have become so clichéd as to be meaningless themselves.

     By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that this article is supposed to be about … simplicity at Christmas.   Yet, whenever I think about Christmas, what comes to mind is a big to-do list – and backgrounding that list is an inventory that plays in my mind regardless of the season: 5 graduate school classes, 2 jobs, 2 small children, 2 aging parents – and somewhere in there is my poor spouse.   There is no way to simplify this formula, especially at Christmas.

     We like to reduce the advent and nativity story to a tale of sentimental simplicity.  But was it?  Think about Mary: according to Luke, twice in her pregnancy she made two long and arduous and perhaps dangerous journeys, first to see her kinswoman Elizabeth, and then to Bethlehem, with Joseph.  She was pregnant and young and unmarried.  She had been told that she was going to bear the son of God, of all things.  None of this could have been “simple.”  But what I love about Mary is that, despite what must have been overwhelming and frightening and terribly uncertain circumstances – she showed up.  She believed.  But she didn’t believe unthinkingly – she pondered these things in her heart.

     I cannot bring simplicity into my world, for as is true for most of us, it is a busy, complex, often overwhelming and uncertain and sometimes frightening place. I can’t make Christmas “simple.”  But I can show up.  I can believe the Good News.  I can ponder in my heart the love I have for my family  – and for a baby boy whose coming into the world changed everything, forever.  I can know the joy I receive from this is real, as my life – as all our lives – spiral toward return and completion in the Messiah.      

Karen Richardson Dunn writes for Morvian Roots and Wings,  even though she is a a wife and mother,  a full-time student at Wake Forest Divinity School, and serves at Fairview Moravian Church as a worship intern.

Recognizing the home as a community of faith, Roots & Wings provides avenues for families to discover and develop their spiritual roots and wings in today’s world. Roots & Wings celebrates and enriches family connectedness within the Moravian Church community.


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